Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Happy Kids are Not My Goal

When parents get together and the conversation turns to the choices we're all making with our kids and how we might react to certain fears or frustrations, someone will usually say "I just want them to be happy."

I've even said it myself.  

As I'm growing this family and tweaking and tightening our interpretations of our convictions about how to raise our kids, I've come to the conclusion that I don't really "just want them to be happy."

I want them to be passionate and empathetic. I want them to be devoted to their families and spouses even when it doesn't feel "happy."  I want them to know purpose and meaning and be the kind of people who leverage their influence and resources for the good of the world around them.  I want them to be fulfilled.  "Happy" is a pale substitute for joy. 

Many years ago I was a cross country coach at the high school at which I taught history.  At practice one night, a few kids got into a competition about who had the biggest house. This was a very affluent area and many of my students lived in what could easily be called mansions.  The kid who "won" biggest house finally silenced everyone else with a simple question:  "Which one?"

From my observations as their coach and teacher, many of these kids had parents who were striving to make them happy.  Their parents were at every meet, they volunteered in the school, they provided nice cars and clothes and technology--these parents were trying very hard to raise happy children. That particular kid's parents (the "which one" kid) had gone through a rather contentious divorce with his mom remarrying a well-known attorney and both of the houses in which he lived were impressive. But he didn't seem all that happy.

I interrupted their conversation and told them that bragging about their houses was like bragging about being naturally fast. You didn't do anything to earn that privilege--you've just managed to not die so far. It would be impressive if you improved your time or worked to make yourselves financially independent from parents who could obviously help you out for many years to come. 

That got me some blank stares and we moved on with practice when the other coach (who knew way more about running than I ever will) showed up and started putting them through speed drills.  Bwa-ah-ah! Take that, snotty rich kids.

I didn't have any children at the time and my Honda Civic didn't compare to the rides these kids were rolling so I just assumed I would learn more about raising happy kids as I got older.  And I have.  I've learned that 20-something-year-old me was right. Trying to make kids happy usually winds up making them selfish, myopic, and hyper-competitive.

Happiness is fleeting and unpredictable. Ask any parent who has bought the perfect pediatrician-recommended plaything for their toddler's birthday only to have them play with it for 1.2 seconds and then fall in love with the box.  And also a pair of old socks.

Trying to make kids happy results in families who are over-scheduled because Junior "loves baseball."  Unfortunately, he also loves basketball, Lego robotics, and Cub Scouts so every night is spent eating in the car and every morning is spent dragging him out of bed.

Trying to raise happy kids causes parents to shift their own lives in an effort to ease the paths of their children. It sounds nice, but we are robbing kids of the opportunity to learn how to deal with pain and fear and disappointment--all necessary to become adults who have a positive impact on the people and places around them. 

Whatever benefits we think we are giving our kids by trying to provide the most enriching opportunities that offer the most stimulation and excitement, we are undoing them by failing to teach children that joy is not born out of your circumstances.  It is part of who you are, how you view the world, and what choices you make with what you are given.

I would say that my childhood was "happy", but our circumstances were not.  My father struggled with a poorly-managed mental illness from my preschool years until after my marriage.  My mother was physically ill throughout my middle school years. These factors made money incredibly tight and a constant source of stress. Yet, my parents taught me to pray. They taught me to love the moments of togetherness and the adventures we shared together. I learned, at a very deep level, that joy comes from your relationships with God and with those around you. 

There is no way we can raise adults who have learned how to be joyful in their lives if we model for our children families where the kids' activities trump the parents' interests, parent/child relationships trump marital ones, and work is done for the purpose of giving our kids "the best."

Children raised with those examples will be easily bored in their own marriages, unfulfilled and misguided about the purpose of their careers, and destined to great disappointment when they finally realize that no one thing will actually ever make them happy.

So, happy, not so much. I just want them to have joy. 

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